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Off-Season Game Plan: Buffalo Sabres

Scott Cullen
5/30/2013 11:00:45 PM
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The Buffalo Sabres ended an era last season when they let coach Lindy Ruff go, replacing him behind the bench with Ron Rolston.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at a rebuilding plan in Buffalo that might take some time and could mean some big names move on to new destinations.

New owner Terry Pegula brought financial wherewithal to the Sabres organization. No longer would they need to take a back seat, content to lose players to bigger salaries in bigger markets.

What that also meant was that the Sabres would have expectations. After all, once the owner loosens the purse strings for massive long-term deals to sign Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff, there is the understanding that these acquisitions are supposed to make the team better and the results on the ice ought to show as much.

Well, in two years since Pegula took over, the Sabres have missed the playoffs both times and someone had to take the fall. First up, Ruff, who had coached the Sabres since 1997-1998. If there isn't some sort of progress, it's hard to imagine that GM Darcy Regier won't be close behind.

So, what can Regier do to get the Sabres heading in the right direction?

Well, they have some young pieces that are decent, including Tyler Ennis, Cody Hodgson and last year's first-round pick, Mikhail Grigorenko. Two of their best players, Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller, are going into the final year of their contracts, making them potential trade commodities. Mix in a few more quality prospects and two first-round picks this year and the Sabres aren't exactly starting from scratch.

The decisions that Regier makes this summer will go a long way towards determining how long and painful this rebuilding process is going to be.

The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013 regular season ratings with a 93.65.

Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.

GM/COACH
Darcy Regier/Ron Rolston

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Thomas Vanek 81.00 38 20 21 41 -1 $7.143M
Ville Leino 68.60 8 2 4 6 0 $4.5M
Tyler Ennis 66.79 47 10 21 31 -14 $2.813M
Steve Ott 66.07 48 9 15 24 +3 $2.95M
Drew Stafford 61.65 46 6 12 18 -16 $4.0M
Marcus Foligno 61.43 47 5 13 18 -4 $900K
Kevin Porter 61.25 31 4 5 9 -1 $538K
Nathan Gerbe 58.03 42 5 5 10 -3 $1.45M
Patrick Kaleta 53.25 34 1 0 1 -4 $1.25M
John Scott 50.63 34 0 0 0 -1 $750K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '12-'13 Cap Hit
Cody Hodgson 70.58 48 15 19 34 -4 RFA $1.667M
Brian Flynn 66.72 26 6 5 11 +6 RFA $1.025M
Jochen Hecht 60.96 47 5 9 14 +6 UFA $1.25M

Sabres Forwards Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com

Amid a crop of inconsistent and unproven forwards, Thomas Vanek remains a scoring machine. In his eight NHL seasons, Vanek has tallied 250 goals, which ranks eighth in the league over that time. For the most part, he also did it with minimal trust from the coaching staff, playing 16-17 minutes per game until last season, when Vanek played a career-high 18:24. Heading into the final year of his contract, 29-year-old Vanek could be moved, to facilitate the building of a young core.

That's not to say Vanek has to be moved. The Sabres could sign him to a new contract, too, but if the Sabres might need some time to become a playoff team, then getting maximum value in return for Vanek could help the long-term prognosis.

After a miserable first season with the Sabres, Ville Leino appeared to be a prime buyout candidate, and he still could be, but he was injured for most of 2013 and had six points in the eight games that he did play. Is that enough to give him one more year to stick, or is it best to cut losses and buy out the last four years and $15-million on his deal?

Undersized forward Tyler Ennis took some plus-minus lumps, but he was taking on more responsibility, against tougher opposition, than in his impressive 2011-2012 season and (anticipated) regression on percentages accounted for some of his decline. Ennis is quick, creative and can be an offensive producer, fitting somewhere in the top six, whether it's at centre or on the wing may depend on other personnel.

One of the most aggravating players in the game, Steve Ott does more than annoy. In the last five years, he's on a small list of players to have at least 60 goals and 500 penalty minutes. He's at the low end of the goal-scorers and high end on penalty minutes, but he can play. At the same time, the Sabres probably asked too much of him, playing a career-high 18:33 per game and taking on the most difficult assignments, so it's one thing to recognize that there is a role for Ott to play, and it's another to put him in a position to be effective in the minutes he's given.

Following back-to-back seasons with at least 50 points, Drew Stafford collapsed last season to just 18 points in 46 games. Bad luck played a part, but putting up a career-low scoring rate when playing 17:01 per game (second-highest of his career) is difficult to accept. Stafford has good size and skill, but consistency has been spotty throughout his career, so it would be understandable of the Sabres contemplated moving him. It could be harder to understand why another team would be willing to take on the last two years of his current deal.

When Marcus Foligno burst onto the NHL scene at the end of the 2011-2012 season, scoring 13 points in 14 games, it raised expectations somewhat, that he might be more than a big-bodied checking winger, which really was the expectation when he was a prospect. Foligno's production declined, but he had solid possession numbers under the circumstances. He's a fit in the top nine now, provding a physical presence that the Sabres sorely need, with perhaps some offensive potential to be unearthed if he can capture some chemistry with a skilled playmaker.

Kevin Porter has been a fringe NHLer ever since winning the Hobey Baker Award in 2008, putting up 54 points in 194 games. He scored 44 points in 48 AHL games last season to earn a promotion to Buffalo. While he might have gained trust from coach Ron Rolston, who coached Porter in Rochester, it would be a surprise if the 27-year-old forward was doing anything other than battling for an NHL job next season.

After a couple of decent years providing complementary offence, Nathan Gerbe fell flat in 2013, managing 10 points in 42 games. He played a career-low 12:30 per game and may have been affected negatively by the lockout, as a relatively inexperienced player who didn't get time in the AHL, like some others that he would compete with for playing time.

Few, if any players in the league are as unpopular as Patrick Kaleta, who can get under the skin of opponents, but it doesn't matter as much when he's not able to contribute in other ways. For example, in 2009-2010, he had 10 goals and 15 points, while he had one goal with no assists in 34 games last season. Coupled with bad possession stats, Kaleta is a player that could easily be scratched from the lineup unless his play improves.

6-foot-8 enforcer John Scott doesn't do much aside from provide the nuclear deterrent. He has one goal and 29 fights in 180 career games and played a career-low 5:27 per game last season.

Health may have dogged Cody Hodgson while he was coming up as a prospect, but he's played 141 games over the last two seasons (one more than the full schedule) and he stepped into a top-line role and fared well. Maybe Hodgson doesn't have ideal size to play the No. 1 pivot, but he's 23-years-old, has established some offensive competence and should produce enough to get significant ice time. Right now, he may be the best the Sabres have.

Brian Flynn needed little more than half a season in the AHL to get his chance in the NHL and he didn't look out place, contributing a little offence and tying for the team-lead in plus-minus. How much offence he can provide -- he had 131 points in 115 games over his last three seasons at the University of Maine -- will determine whether he finds his way into the top six or settles into a bottom six role.

The Sabres could use more scoring, so adding top prospect Mikhail Grigorenko along with a veteran free agent or two could help the attack. Nathan Horton, Ryane Clowe, Pascal Dupuis or even Jaromir Jagr could be decent additions.

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Christian Ehrhoff 73.79 47 5 17 22 +6 $4.0M
Andrej Sekera 67.80 37 2 10 12 -2 $2.75M
Tyler Myers 63.28 39 3 5 8 -8 $5.5M

Free Agent Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '12-'13 Cap Hit
Alexander Sulzer 66.78 17 3 1 4 +3 UFA $725K
Mike Weber 64.68 42 1 6 7 +3 RFA $950K
Adam Pardy 63.94 17 0 4 4 +4 UFA $2.0M

Sabres Defence Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com

He takes heat for signing such a big contract, but Christian Ehrhoff played really well for the Sabres in 2013, logging a career-high 25:11 per game, posting terrific possession numbers while facing a high level of competition. Of course, he's under contract through 2021, so that's a long investment but, right now, he ought to be pretty low on the Sabres' list of worries.

Andrej Sekera played a career-high 21:12 for the Sabres last season, and while he faced tough assignments, there were indications that it was more than he could handle, but Sekera was also thrust into more than 23 minutes per game over the final month once the Sabres had dealt veterans Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr. For Sekera to be successful, he should probably knock off a couple minutes per game and not face the most difficult checking assignments.

One of the biggest problems for the Sabres has been the decline in performance from 6-foot-8 blueliner Tyler Myers. His ice time was down to a career-low 21:19 last season and that's despite being force-fed 24:31 per game in April. Myers is a tremendous skater and, combined with that size, could be an elite defenceman, but the downward trend in the 23-year-old's production is reason for concern.

A tough customer who can handle a role on the third pair, Mike Weber has been overmatched when matched against top lines, but he can take a regular turn, kill penalties and there's nothing wrong with that.

Having purged their blueline of some veterans, the Sabres are probably going to need to go shopping this summer. Prospects Mark Pysyk and Brayden McNabb could be good bets to make the club next season, but an established top-four veteran, like ex-Sabre Toni Lydman, Ron Hainsey, Ian White or Andrew Ference would ease some of the matchup pressure for younger Sabres defenders.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Cap Hit
Ryan Miller 69.40 40 17 17 5 2.81 .915 $6.25M

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Class '12-'13 Cap Hit
Jhonas Enroth 73.54 12 4 4 1 2.60 .919 RFA $675K

It's ironic to have Ryan Miller listed under "Returning Goaltender" because there is a decent chance that won't actually be the case. He's going into the final year of his contract and while he's been okay, over the last three seasons Miller has a .916 save percentage, which ranks 15th in the league, between Devan Dubnyk and Marc-Andre Fleury. Miller can be better than that, as his 2010 Vezina Trophy suggests, so it's reasonable that another team will be willing to take a chance on the 32-year-old.

Jhonas Enroth hasn't played much as Miller's backup, but he has a .914 save percentage in 53 career games. He's small for a number one goaltender, so Enroth may not be gifted the clearcut starting job if Miller moves on, but he could play a more significant role, either in conjunction with prospect Matt Hackett or with a veteran that might require minimal investment, like Evgeni Nabokov, Niklas Backstrom or Jose Theodore.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Mikhail Grigorenko C Quebec (QMJHL) 30-24-54, +10, 33 GP
Joel Armia RW Assat Pori (SML) 19-14-33, +12, 47 GP
Zemgus Girgensons C Rochester (AHL) 6-11-17, -7, 61 GP
Mark Pysyk D Rochester (AHL) 4-14-18, +8, 57 GP
Brayden McNabb D Rochester (AHL) 5-31-36, -1, 62 GP
Johan Larsson C Rochester (AHL) 16-25-41, -2, 69 GP
Jake McCabe D Wisconsin (WCHA) 3-18-21, +14, 38 GP
Matt Hackett G Rochester (AHL) 22-20-3, 2.59 GAA, .911 SV%
Daniel Catenacci C Owen Sound (OHL) 38-41-79, +31, 67 GP
Corey Tropp RW Rochester (AHL) 2-2-4, -1, 6 GP

The Sabres burned a year of Mikhail Grigorenko's entry-level contract by keeping him around for 25 games, yet playing him barely10 minutes per game. He's put up 70 goals and 139 points in 92 Quebec League games over the past couple seasons, so he's ready to take on a new challenge and the Sabres should be able to use his size and skill down the middle. Maybe if next season starts as more of a rebuilding effort, the Sabres will be willing to suffer through some growing pains in order to get Grigorenko the reps he needs.

The 16th pick in the 2011 draft, Finnish winger Joel Armia has size and can finish, but probably could use some time in the AHL, acclimating to the North American game, before he's expected to produce in the NHL.

19-year-old Zemgus Girgensons made a quantum leap from the USHL to the American Hockey League and while he didn't produce much, scoring six goals in 69 games, he did find the net three times in three playoff games. Given time, last year's 14th pick could be an interesting power forward prospect.

Drafted 23rd overall in 2010, Mark Pysyk made a smooth transition to the pro game, playing the same safe and steady game that got him noticed in the first place. He got called up to Buffalo for 19 games and probably did enough to gain an inside track on a job for next season, particularly if there aren't many veterans added to the thin Buffalo blueline.

Brayden McNabb is a big and physical presence with offensive ability, putting up 66 points in 107 AHL games over his first two pro seasons. He played 25 games for Buffalo in 2011-2012, so it wouldn't be a reach to think that he could break camp with the team next year.

Acquired from Minnesota in the Jason Pominville deal, Johan Larsson is a sound two-way player who isn't far off being ready for the NHL after the 20-year-old tallied 41 points in 69 games during his first AHL campaign.

Jake McCabe is a heady defenceman, who doesn't have great size or speed, but moves the puck well and plays with some aggression. He's still just 19 after two years at Wisconsin, so there's plenty of time for McCabe to develop.

The other prime prospect picked up from Minnesota, Matt Hackett has played 135 games in the AHL over the last three seasons and was very good (2.38 GAA, .921 SV%) in a dozen-game stint with the Wild in 2011-2012. At 23, and with that experience, Hackett could be ready for this chance in the NHL, or he may be waiting a little longer depending on how the Sabres address their goaltending situation.

A feisty player who doesn't have great size, Daniel Catenacci has been a scorer in the OHL, but hasn't improved his production much over the last three seasons. There is offensive potential that could land him in the top six, but there may be some projection required to put Catenacci in that light.

Corey Tropp was sidelined for most of last season after a knee injury six games into the season. He's a hard-nosed energy winger who played 34 games for the Sabres in 2011-2012 and has 26 points in 33 AHL games over the last couple seasons.

Buffalo has a reasonably deep group of prospects which also includes Chad Ruhwedel, a mobile defenceman from UMass-Lowell; Jerome Gauthier-Leduc, a defenceman who put up big numbers in the Q, but struggled in his first pro season; Justin Kea, a 6-foot-4 centre who added a little offence to his game this year and Logan Nelson, a two-way pivot taken in the fifth round last summer.

DRAFT
8th - Sean Monahan, Darnell Nurse, Max Domi.
16th - Ryan Pulock, Andre Burakovsky, Curtis Lazar.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Sabres have approximately $45.9M committed to the 2013-2014 salary cap for 14 players.

Check out my possible Sabres lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.

Needs: Two top-six forwards, two top-four defencemen, another defenceman.

What I said the Sabres needed last year: First line centre, checking centre, top-four defenceman.

They added: Steve Ott, Mikhail Grigorenko, John Scott.

TRADE MARKET
Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek, Drew Stafford, Mikhail Grigorenko, Tyler Myers.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.




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